Several months and thirty-six scandals ago, the Environmental Protection Agency spent over $43,000 to install a soundproof phone booth in administrator Scott Pruitt’s office.
Congressional Democrats—including Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, who, full disclosure, I interned for—asked the Government Accountability Office if that was legal. And in a legal opinion released Monday, the GAO found that Pruitt and the EPA were, in fact, in violation of the dang law:
EPA violated section 710 of the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act, 2017 when it failed to notify the Committees on Appropriations of the House of Representatives and Senate prior to obligating in excess of $5,000 to install a soundproof privacy booth for the office of the Administrator during his period of appointment. Because EPA used its appropriations in a manner specifically prohibited by law, EPA violated the Antideficiency Act. EPA should report its Antideficiency Act violation as required by law.
According to the GAO’s opinion, the EPA argued that the booth “serves a functional purpose” so Pruitt could operate “without concern that classified, deliberative, privileged, or ensitive information might inadvertently be disclosed.” They also argued, hilariously, that the booth was as necessary for Pruitt to do his job as a computer, a copier/scanner, or a television.
The GAO, however, said that the EPA’s only mistake was in not notifying Congress of its intent to buy Pruitt’s new toy, not in the purchase itself.
“We draw no conclusions regarding whether the installation of the privacy booth was the only, or the best, way for EPA to provide a secure telephone line for the Administrator,” the report says. “However, we recognize the requirement to protect classified material and the need for employees to have access to a secure telephone line when handling such information in the course of conducting official agency business. After making the required notification, section 710 would have presented no bar to EPA’s activities.” (EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman told the Washington Post on Monday that the EPA “will be sending Congress the necessary information this week.”)
“It is critical that EPA and all federal agencies comply with notification requirements to Congress before spending tax payer dollars,” Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, a Republican who heads the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee which oversees the EPA, said in a statement. “[The] EPA must give a full public accounting of this expenditure and explain why the agency thinks it was complying with the law.”
“There are few greater examples of government waste than a $43,000 phone booth. Now we know that the purchase wasn’t just unnecessary and wasteful, but actually illegal,” Democratic Rep. Betsy McCollum of Minnesota said in a joint statement with Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico. “Worse still, this is part of a pattern of abuse of power, ethics violations, and disrespect for the rule of law by Administrator Pruitt.” You don’t say.